The UK has finally published its negotiating position on the Irish border. The 30 page long document is, unsurprisingly, high on lofty principle but low on concrete detail. I do not wish to go through the proposals step by step as I don’t think there is need to. Others have done a much better job than I could have. In particular, I don’t want to dwell on the importance of free movement of people between the North and South of Ireland, or the importance for residents of the North to identify solely as Irish if they wish. I could not do justice to these fundamental points here. Rather, I want to make 2 broad points.
- Paragraph 33 and Usurping Ireland’s Negotiating Strength
From my reading of the document, the key sentence is contained at paragraph 33:
“Wider questions about the UK’s future operation of its whole border and immigration controls for EEA nationals (other than Irish nationals) can only be addressed as part of the future relationship between the UK and the EU, and further highlights the need to move to this next phase of negotiations as quickly as possible.”
In April 2017, outgoing Taoiseach Enda Kenny heralded as a great victory the inclusion of the status of the Irish border as one of the four key issues to be decided in the Brexit negotiations prior to negotiations commencing on the UK’s future relation with the EU. What Paragraph 33 tells is us that the UK is seeking to circumvent this.
The Brexit negotiations consist of 2 strands: Firstly, the terms of divorce between the EU and the UK; and secondly, the terms of the UK’s future relationship with the EU. Since the UK voted to leave the EU, the British Government has made no secret of its desire to expedite negotiations to the second stage. Far from being a comprehensive plan outlining how the future border on the island of Ireland will work, the British Government’s proposals are a negotiating tactic to achieve exactly this.
- The UK does not understand the importance of the Customs Union to Ireland
The UK’s proposals essentially envisage a lax, “sure it’ll be grand” attitude to customs between the North and South of Ireland. While this may solve the issue of avoiding any ostensible border controls, what is concerning about the UK’s proposals is that they demonstrate a clear lack of understanding of Ireland’s position and the importance of the customs union.
In very crude terms, for the UK, Brexit is about keeping foreign people out; for the EU and, particularly, Ireland, Brexit is about keeping foreign goods out. Ireland does not have vast natural resources to draw upon. Rather, our key resource is agriculture. “Brand Ireland” (for want of a better, less cringe-worthy term) therefore is all about the quality of the goods produced— think green fields and healthy, happy cows and sheep.
It is for this reason that Ireland tends to react in a rather disproportionate fashion to any crisis that may undermine this image. Hence, the Irish response to the pork-dioxin crisis in 2008 was to remove all pork products from shelves, regardless of the minimal risk involved. Similarly, the horse-meat scandal of 2013 came to light in Ireland, not because of the particularly acute problem Ireland had with horse-meat but because transparency was considered so important to ‘brand Ireland’. Covering up the issue, it was calculated, would have done more harm than good. By ripping the band-aid off quickly and cleanly, Ireland sought to re-assure other countries that any potential future issues with the quality of the products it produces would be dealt with in a similarly transparent manner. A final example can be seen from how Ireland responded to the Foot and Mouth crisis in 2001, with over 50,000 animals on the Cooley Peninsula in County Louth culled and disinfecting checkpoints set up across the county. I can still remember the hope of my school in Dundalk potentially being closed to prevent further spread but, alas, the other contingency measures were more than sufficient and only 2 cases on the island— one in Meigh in County Armagh and one in Jenkinstown County Louth—were confirmed.
It is only by understanding this context that one can see why the UK’s streamlined border approach will face significant hurdles on the island of Ireland and why Ireland will be reluctant to accept this so-called solution. The Irish border will be a weak link for goods not reaching the EU’s exacting quality standards to enter into the Irish supply chain. It is a weak link that Ireland cannot afford. Thus, while British people may be horrified at the thought of eating chlorine-washed chicken, if such produce (or similar) were to end up in Irish goods, the impact this could have on the economy and Ireland’s reputation could be disastrous, similar to the scenarios mentioned above.
Irish people may have a reputation in the UK of a ‘nudge-nudge, wink wink’ attitude to life, seeking to take shortcuts wherever possible. Fawlty Towers’ Mr O’Reilly springs to mind in this regard. But on this issue of customs, Ireland cannot afford to and the UK does not seem to understand this.
Customs checks on mainland Britain rather than on the island of Ireland or ‘special status’ for Northern Ireland within the EU would solve these issues. Both of these proposals have, however, been rejected by the DUP. We are therefore no closer to a solution to the Irish border and rather than being re-assured, I’m more concerned than ever.
Image credit Duncan Hull: http://bit.ly/2wb2kwK